In the previous post, we’ve explored Kantianism and the Categorical Imperatives that it encompasses. The imperative that underpins the whole ethical theory is the Universalizability Principle. The principle gave the whole theory its absolute nature, telling us what to do and not do by universalizing actions. The universalizing of actions itself also means that no exceptions should be given to yourself, simply because it is not fair to do so. It, however, was very focused on the intent behind the actions. The ethical theory, Utilitarianism, that we are going to talk about today; focuses more on the consequences.

Metaethical Species Moral Absolutism

Crashcourse’s Batman Example

Crashcourse, a YouTube channel that I get educated in Philosphy for the first time, gave a very strong example to explain the difference between Kantianism and Utilitarianism: 

“Should Batman kill the Joker? If you were to ask the Dark Knight himself, with his hard-and-fast no-killing rule, he’d say absolutely not…When you think about it, dude is pretty Kantian in his ethics. Regardless of what Joker does, there are some lines that good people do not cross, and for Batman, killing definitely falls on the wrong side of that line. But, let’s be real here: Joker is never gonna stop killing. Sure, Batman will have him thrown back in Arkham, but we all know that he’s gonna get out – he always gets out – and once he’s free, he will kill again. And maim and terrorize. And when he does… won’t a little bit of that be Batman’s fault? Batman has been in a position to kill Joker hundreds of times. He has had the power to save anyone from ever being a victim of the Joker again. If you have the ability to stop a killer, and you don’t, are you morally pure because you didn’t kill? Or are you morally dirty because you refused to do what needs to be done?”

To answer the question posed in the example: it depends on whether you are a Kantian or a Utilitarian. You would think that Batman is morally pure if you are a Kantian, but he would be morally dirty to you if you are a Utilitarian.

Grounding of Utilitarianism: Maximum Happiness

Modern Utilitarianism was proposed by 18th century British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. These thinkers ground their ethical theory on the universal desire of all humans to maximize happiness, utility, or pleasure. We all want maximum happiness, and by extension, minimum pain; because pain reduces happiness/utility/pleasure. Bentham and Mill believed that this is true because if we think about all our actions; we can trace it back to the intended effect of increasing our happiness/utility/pleasure. I took a job so that I can earn some salary, so that I have disposable income to spend on delicious food, and delicious food makes me happy. Just think about it, practically everything that you are doing is to maximize your own happiness; even altruistic acts: We donate to charity because we believe in giving. By giving, we tell ourselves that: “hey, good job self; you did something great today and definitely made other people’s lives better”. This thought itself, as much as you want to deny it because it contradicts altruism, provides the intended happiness for yourself. Thus, it is based on the universalizability of this maximum utility/happiness that Mill and Bentham constructed the ethical theory of Utilitarianism; arguing that we should drive our morality based on this very basic and common desire.

Hedonistic and Egoistic Ethical Theory?

Utilitarianism is a Hedonistic moral theory, because it advocates maximum pleasure and happiness. That much is true, despite the negative connotation of Hedonism. However, it is often wrongly criticized for being an egoistic moral theory. This is understandable because pursuing maximum pleasure gives people the impression of a selfish ideology. However, this is a misunderstanding about Utilitarianism. First, let’s look at the Principle of Utility to understand why that is so.

Principle of Utility

The moral principle of Utilitariansim isn’t as complex as Kantianism’s Universalizability Principle, the Principle of Utility simply states that: “we should act always so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.”

An Other-Regarding Theory 

Contrary to the criticisms of egoisticism, Utilitarianism is actually other-regarding; because it demands you to take one for the team if it can provide overall greater happiness for everyone. For instance, if Superman is an Utilitarian in the context of the movie, Batman Versus Superman; he would have committed suicide because his power is causing more danger than he is saving everyone from. This is where Utilitarians will take one for the team and sacrifice themselves. It is important that we understand the noble feature of Utilitariansim so that we can judge the virtue of this ethical theory fairly.

But Not Exactly A Selfless Theory

Following the Principle Of Utility may lead us to selfless endeavors. One such example would be the overused plot scenario in almost every culture that someone makes the self-sacrifice to save everyone else. However, such acts should not be seen as Utilitarians putting everyone else’s lives above theirs, because Utilitarians do not discriminate; not even to themselves. What they see are simply numbers. If it means sacrificing another person to save everyone else’s lives, including their own, they would do it. Let me present you with another interesting ethical dilemma similar to the Batman scenario:

The above picture shows a tram on the trajectory to kill 5 strangers that you don’t know. You have the power to turn the switch and the tram will be well on its way to kill that one guy which happens to be your brother. What will you do? For a Utilitarian, he will trigger the switch to kill his brother instead of the 5; because it creates the greatest good. But what if he is one of the 5 guys stuck on the track? Do you think he will want the guy who is at the switch to turn it? The answer is yes, because he sees his own life as a base value of one; the same as everyone else. Turning the switch does not change the fact that he is exchanging 1 life for 5, only including his own in the 5 this time. Hence, Utilitarianism is not a selfless theory either; but it is definitely a theory that is based on equality, much like Kantianism since exceptions should not be given to oneself, but with a flavor of pragmatism added to it.

The Difficulty of Upholding This Equality

As much as Utilitarians want to view all lives as equal, they often find it an insurmountable task to do so. This is because of evolution and human bias: self-importance. Because our ancestors are those who put themselves first, therefore becoming the survivals among their fellow primates; we are genetically predisposed to put ourselves first. Naturally, defying our biology is extremely difficult. As much as you want to think that you are altruistic and selfless, you have to admit that you are not completely pure. When presented with the tram scenario where the one person is my loved one, honestly, I will choose to not to hit the switch; despite being a former self-proclaimed Utilitarian. It’s not easy to get rid of your own self-importance. When you see the news of a serial killer on the loose in another country, it’s not going to concern you as much as one being reported in your neighborhood. This is why Utilitarianism is idealistic.

Bringing Utilitarianism Closer To Its Ideal

Utilitarians recognize the idealism of their theory, hence they’ve come up with a refined approach to reduce the human bias of self-importance as much as possible. They suggest that: instead of making moral decisions as a participant, do it as though you are advising a group as an outsider, a third-party, or a spectator. Forcing yourself to take yourself out of the equation naturally, albeit to varying degree of success, reduces the bias; thus bringing yourself closer to being a full-fledge Utilitarian.

The 2 Different Generations of Utiltarianism

When Mill and Bentham first proposed Utilitarianism in the 18th century, it was in its infancy. Their version of Utilitarianism is now known as Act Utilitarianism, or sometimes referred to as Classical Utilitarianism. Later on, Utilitarians refined the theory and called their version Rule Utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism

Act Utilitarianism is very straight forward and simple, which is the source of its problem because simplicity does not fit into the complexity of our world; as John Green always say in his videos: “The truth resist simplicity”. Act Utilitarianism simply uses the Principle of Utility irregardless of any situation. So what is the problem? Crashcourse presented a classical thought experiment that triggered the revision of Utilitarianism. The thought experiment is as follow:

“For instance, suppose a surgeon has five patients, all waiting for transplants. One needs a heart, another a lung. Two are waiting for kidneys and the last needs a liver. The doctor is pretty sure that these patients will all die before their names come up on the transplant list. And he just so happens to have a neighbor who has no family. Total recluse. Not even a very nice guy. The doctor knows that no one would miss this guy if he were to disappear. And by some miracle, the neighbor is a match for all five of the transplant patients. So, it seems like, even though this would be a bad day for the neighbor, an act-utilitarian should kill the neighbor and give his organs to the five patients. It’s the greatest good for the greatest number. Yes, one innocent person dies, but five innocent people are saved. This might seem harsh, but remember that pain is pain, regardless of who’s experiencing it. So the death of the neighbor would be no worse than the death of any of those patients dying on the transplant list. In fact, it’s five times less bad than all five of their deaths.”

Does this seem rather unacceptable? Harvesting others’ organs to save lives? This is why Act, or Classical, Utilitarianism is rejected by many; it can disrespect laws and social norms at times. Because of this, Utilitarians refined the theory into Rule Utilitarianism to rectify this flaw.

Rule Utilitarianism

This version of Utilitarianism kept the Principle of Utility but also was added with another feature: happiness should be measured in long-term and on a larger scale. The time factor made Rule-Utilitarians law-abiding citizens who are also pragmatic in characteristic. Take the organ example for instance, because harvesting organs of your neighbour, if you get away with it, will cause the society to panic in fear of their neighbors harvesting their organs, and possibly creating a bigger black market for organ transactions; it makes it more detrimental to the society as a whole. If you are caught, you will be stripped of your profession as a doctor; causing the potential lives that you could’ve saved in your career to be left to their own fate. Hence, a Rule-Utilitarian doctor will not harvest their neighbours’ organs to save lives. However, they would still call for Batman to kill Joker, or people to support capital punishment, because murderers such as Joker tend to cause more harm to society than the alternate scenario of executing them. Nonetheless, this raise another issue of measurement.

Difficulty of The Measurement of Utility

You notice that Utilitarians are very calculative, because they want to ensure that what they do will cause greater good than harm. Most situations are not as clear-cut and numerical as killing 1 to save 5 such as in the tram scenario or executing murderers to prevent further cases of murders. What Utilitarianism is concerned about are happiness, pleasure; and pain. These things are inherently intangible, and only when we have a very black-and-white indication of happiness vs no happiness, such as life and death (loss of life = 0 happiness/ saving life = maximum happiness); then can we assuringly estimate utility. In most circumstances, especially when you take into account the difference in perception of happiness among people in a large group, estimation has no truth value. Without an accurate measurement of utility, it is difficult to be sure what is the right moral decision to make; thus making Utilitarianism an unreliable ethical theory in normal , non-life-threatening circumstances.


Through Crashcourse’s Batman’s example, we see that Kantianism is different from Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, proposed by 18th century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, does not have the grounding problem because it is grounded on the basic human desire to maximize pleasure/happiness/utility. As Utilitarianism is grounded on maximum happiness/pleasure/utility, it is correctly referred to as a Hedonistic moral theory. However, this usually comes with criticism of it being an Egoistic theory. This criticism is flawed as Utilitarianism, when we spell out its definitive Principle of Utility, is actually other-regarding. Although it is other-regarding, we must not go too far to label Utilitarianism as a Selfless Theory; because it merely treats all lives with equal value. Circumstances may give rise to selfless actions, but it is not selflessness for the sake of it;  the Utilitarian just happened to be selfless. These Utilitarians indulge in such endeavors because Utilitarianism champions the equality of all lives. Nevertheless, equality is an ideal that requires us to defy our selfish genes in order to achieve it. Although Utilitarians suggests a third-person style of approaching moral decisions, this measure can only reduce the genetic disposition of self-importance; not eliminate it. In the history of Utilitarianism, there also exists 2 variants: Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism runs into the issue of not respecting the rule of law, which is why Utilitalitarians refined it into Rule Utilitarian, focusing on the bigger picture and long-term-ism. However, this only made the intangibility of utility more prominent since a larger; thus more diverse group of people in the context of society needs to be taken into account. This makes Utilitarianism an unreliable ethical theory in normal circumstances. Nonetheless, when utility is clear-cut, such as in life-threatening and extreme circumstances like the tram or Batman scenario; we can rely on it to make rational ethical decisions. In the next post, I will elaborate on another secular ethical theory, Contractarianism, which is the first moral anti-realistic ethical theory that I will explore.

Signing off,



Crashcourse (YouTube Channel)


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